With today's available computer power, free energy calculations from equilibrium molecular dynamics simulations “via counting” become feasible for an increasing number of reactions. An example is the dimerization reaction of transmembrane alpha-helices. If an extended simulation of the two helices covers sufficiently many dimerization and dissociation events, their binding free energy is readily derived from the fraction of time during which the two helices are observed in dimeric form. Exactly how the correct value for the free energy is to be calculated, however, is unclear, and indeed several different and contradictory approaches have been used. In particular, results obtained via Boltzmann statistics differ from those determined via the law of mass action. Here, we develop a theory that resolves this discrepancy. We show that for simulation systems containing two molecules, the dimerization free energy is given by a formula of the form ΔG ∝ ln(P1/P0). Our theory is also applicable to high concentrations that typically have to be used in molecular dynamics simulations to keep the simulation system small, where the textbook dilute approximations fail. It also covers simulations with an arbitrary number of monomers and dimers and provides rigorous error estimates. Comparison with test simulations of a simple Lennard Jones system with various particle numbers as well as with reference free energy values obtained from radial distribution functions show full agreement for both binding free energies and dimerization statistics. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Comput Chem, 2011
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